By Jared Sichel (JewishJournal.com)
August 14, 2013
Sitting with his back hunched, his wife by his side and a kippah on his head, a 23-year-old bearded Orthodox man nervously told a gathering of parents at a private residence near Pico-Robertson that a young man named Mendel Tevel had sexually abused him when he was 14. Tevel now lives in Los Angeles and is believed to have worked in recent months at JEM, a Jewish youth center in Beverly Hills.
The alleged victim did not tell the group his name and demanded that all cell phones be placed in a separate room — and although he told the Journal his full name, because of the sensitivity of the subject he asked that it be withheld from this story. This was his first public accounting of his alleged abuse, talking to about 40 community members on the evening of Aug. 5. As people trickled into the home of David and Etty Abehsera, he began his story:
When he was a 14-year-old student — in around 2004 — at the since-closed Shterns Yeshiva in upstate New York, Tevel, then a mentor at the school, initiated what was at first a friendly relationship with the speaker. Tevel, who is now about 30, was around 21 years old at the time.
At first, the man alleged, Tevel offered simply to be the student’s exercise partner. But eventually, he said, Tevel came up with extreme ways to motivate him to work out harder, including repeatedly whipping him with a metal coat hanger, which he said lacerated his skin and caused bleeding.
He claimed that as the relationship grew, Tevel would crawl into bed with him at night, inappropriately massage him, and rub his clothed body against the boy’s. He claimed Tevel also bent him over and spanked him when he refused to immerse himself in what was sometimes a very cold outdoor mikveh (ritual bath). These incidents occurred multiple times, the speaker said.
“He wasn’t exactly trying to hide the fact that he had an erection at the time,” the alleged victim told the gathering, describing his incidents with Tevel in the mikveh.
“I was a very naïve 14-year-old, but something just didn’t feel right, so I cut off ties with him.”
Because these acts occurred in New York, where the statute of limitations for charging someone with sexual abuse expires when the victim turns 23, the State of New York would not be able to press charges against Tevel based on this man’s testimony alone. The man said he currently lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights but on the night he spoke he was in Los Angeles on vacation.
Following this accounting, three more people alleging to be victims of Tevel shared their stories with the Journal via telephone from Brooklyn, where Tevel was born and raised, and where he lived before he moved to Los Angeles in 2012. All of the alleged victims interviewed by phone, when asked, told the Journal they do not know personally any other people who say they’ve been abused by Tevel. The instances described by those who spoke with the Journal took place as early as around 1995 and as recently as around 2004.
Tevel himself did not respond to multiple phone calls to his personal cell phone, nor to voicemails, text messages and e-mails from the Journal over several days. Searches of both civil and criminal public records did not reveal any convictions, or any closed or pending charges against Tevel in either New York or California.
Two local residents, both of whom asked that their names not be made public, identified Tevel as recently working at the JEM Center. One said that Tevel and his wife, Bracha, were directing JEM’s Hebrew High School Program as recently as one month ago. On the Web site jewishcommunitywatch.org, Tevel is labeled as the “counselor/director of JEM center.”
Another person confirmed seeing Tevel at a farbrengen (a Chasidic celebratory gathering) on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, at JEM. The gathering included both adults and children.
On the morning of Aug. 13, just before press time, Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, director and founder of the JEM Center, answered one of many phone calls made by the Journal to him over a period of three days. Illulian said he was not able to immediately comment because he was dealing with a recent death in the community.
Illulian’s daughter, Bracha, married Tevel in 2012. Bracha also did not respond to multiple attempts to reach her.
The accounts from the four alleged victims who spoke with the Journal provided vivid details of both sexual and physical abuse. Two of the alleged cases occurred in Brooklyn, N.Y. The other two occurred at Machane Menachem, a since-closed Chabad-Lubavitch sleepaway camp in Lackawaxen, Penn., where two former staff members have confirmed that Tevel worked in 2001.
All four of the alleged victims currently live in Brooklyn, and each asked that their names not be made public.
One alleged victim, now 25, who spoke to the Journal on the phone from Brooklyn, described an incident indicating that Tevel’s abuse might have begun at a very early age. The 25-year-old said that when he was 6 or 7 years old, his family lived near Tevel’s family in Brooklyn.
The alleged victim said that Tevel, then 11 or 12, would go to the basement of his home multiple times per week with him, lock the door, tie him down, remove some or all of his clothing, and whip him (he does not remember with what).
“One thing I do remember very clearly is that it was very painful, and saying ‘Ow’ a lot of times,” the 25-year-old told the Journal.
“I had just a T-shirt on and socks,” he continued. “Of course, pants and any sort of underwear, that was gone.” He said that this continued for several months.
The alleged victim, who was raised an observant Jew, said he has since attended therapy for years, on and off. It was not until he was 19 or 20 that he opened up to his therapist about the incidents. He said that he is no longer particularly observant.
A third alleged victim said that when he was 11, likely in 2001, he was a camper at Machane Menachem. Now 23, he said that Tevel, who was likely about 18 at the time, was a counselor at the camp, and worked closely with the campers.
“I was on my [bunk’s] front porch and he called me to the side of the pool,” the alleged victim said during a phone interview with the Journal. “He started smacking me on my bum with a pingpong paddle.”
He said that although “he didn’t make much of it in the beginning,” when Tevel began smacking him harder and tried to pull down his pants, he asked Tevel, “What are you doing?” Tevel’s response, according to the alleged victim, was that he “brushed the whole thing off.” No further incidents followed.
A fourth alleged victim who spoke with the Journal is currently 21 years old. He said that when he was about 9 and Tevel was about 18, he was a first-time camper at Machane Menachem. One day, he alleged, Tevel brought him into a sports equipment room.
As another person watched the door, the 21-year-old man claimed, Tevel bent him over his lap and smacked him on the rear with a pingpong paddle. He then pulled down his bathing suit and continued smacking him.
This alleged victim, who is also no longer observant, said that when he grew up, he would become very anxious when he would occasionally see Tevel walking in the streets of Crown Heights.
According to Pennsylvania law, both of the alleged victims from the sleepaway camp would be able to press charges, should they choose to do so, until they turn 50.
Allegations of sexual abuse by Tevel first became public in October 2012, when Meyer Seewald, the New York-based 24-year-old founder of Jewish Community Watch (JCW), posted about him on the Web site’s “Wall Of Shame,” after multiple alleged victims came to Seewald to accuse Tevel of sexual abuse.
JCW, which regularly publicizes information about suspected sexual abusers within the Jewish community — mostly in Crown Heights, where Seewald lives — currently lists 40 people on its Wall Of Shame. The Journal confirmed that neither Seewald nor JCW has ever been sued for libel or defamation regarding its publicizing of accused abusers.
That review process includes personal interviews with multiple alleged victims and what appears to be a thorough investigation process. Following that, JCW will only post a suspect if its board unanimously agrees that the person is a child predator. JCW has a database of about 200 suspected predators that it is still investigating.
In one instance, JCW posted the name and a photo of a man, Daniel Granovetter, on its Web site after he was mistakenly charged by New York authorities with abuse when a student accused him, only to later retract the accusation.
The authorities dropped the charges, and JCW removed Granovetter from its Web site, but the damage to his reputation had been done.
In June, though, Granovetter penned an op-ed on chabadinfo.com commending JCW for its work, saying that Seewald should continue to post the names of people charged with abuse in order to protect children who could become victims in the time between the arrest and possible conviction.
Seewald claimed to have spoken with at least four more people alleging to have been victims of Tevel, but none of them would speak with the Journal.
Refusal to go public with sexual abuse accusations, Seewald believes, is a common problem in the Orthodox community.
Seewald, who was at the Aug. 5 gathering, said that in his two years of running JCW and speaking with hundreds of victims, not one had ever told his or her story publicly to so many people.
Ben Forer, a local Orthodox Jew who is also a district attorney for Los Angeles County, wrote a public letter praising JCW’s “impeccable review process before exposing any predators.” (In speaking with the Journal, Forer said he was speaking only as a concerned community member, and not in any way on behalf of the district attorney’s office.) Rabbi Avraham Zajac, a local Orthodox rabbi, also said he respects JCW’s process. “I trust the methodology of Jewish Community Watch,” Zajac said. “The biggest thing is keeping our children safe.”
Forer was at the Aug. 5 gathering; he said that from his experience, “people don’t want to believe” allegations of sexual abuse.
“Families come out in support, in every community, in support of the predator, no matter what the evidence is,” said Forer, who currently specializes in technology-related crimes but has previously prosecuted sexual abuse cases.
In 2012, not long after Tevel’s arrival in Los Angeles, a local Orthodox Jew, Danny Fishman, briefly met Tevel on Shabbat morning at a local synagogue. Fishman said he did not know at the time about the allegations against Tevel.
“I met him,” Fishman told the Journal. “He came across as personable and charming.”
Tevel has also been known to occasionally attend other synagogues in Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson.
A statement posted late last week on JEM’s Web site addressing the recent controversy surrounding Tevel did not mention him or any of the specific allegations against him, but stated that “JEM Center wishes to reassure the community that every precaution has been taken to resolve the concerns and bring this matter to a closure.”
The statement continued: “The local authorities have been contacted and are thoroughly investigating all issues that have been raised (and if needed action will be taken).”
JEM has surveillance cameras in all areas of its building, the statement continued, and no rooms or offices in the building are allowed to be locked.
Lt. Lincoln Hoshino of the Beverly Hills Police Department confirmed on Aug. 13 that it is conducting an investigation involving the JEM Center. He declined to say whether Tevel is involved in the investigation.
Toward the end of the alleged victim’s account on Aug. 5, the former Shterns Yeshiva student explained why he came forward.
“It actually did take a lot for me to come out here and speak,” he said. But when he heard that Tevel is working around children in Los Angeles, he felt he had an obligation to do something.
“He [Tevel] has damaged a lot of people,” the man alleged. “He cannot be around schools; he cannot be around the community.”
With anger in his voice, he expressed his frustration with what he sees as the Orthodox community’s preference to not bring such cases into public light.
“Keeping it close-knit is not going to help,” the alleged victim asserted, his voice rising. “Keeping it close-knit is what the Jewish community has done for years.”